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‘I’ll check their phones until they’re 18′: What should our teenagers be allowed to do on their mobiles?

A series looking at the freedoms we should or should not allow for our children

You make the mistake of blinking and suddenly they are teenagers; on the road to adulthood, desperate for some independence, but perhaps without the maturity and experience to manage some of the freedoms they desire.

So what should our teens be allowed to do? And how do we balance freedoms and respecting the stage of life they’re at against parental ideals and keeping them safe?

To snoop or not to snoop

Keeping teens safe online is one of the biggest challenges parents face. Keeping an eye on what they’re watching or posting, or who they’re even talking to, can prove difficult to balance against respecting their need for privacy.

Claire’s three teens got phones just before they started secondary school. As part of that agreement, she checks them when she wants and plans to keep doing this until they’re 18. “I usually check messages, emails and internet history,” she says. “I check to keep them safe. I would check more regularly if the child is upset or moody ... my main concern being that they have received bullying messages. They are aware that I check and if they specifically ask me not to look at something and give me a valid reason why, then I won’t. I feel this protects their privacy.”


Both of Angela’s children got their first phones when they were in sixth class. Angela still checks her 16 year old’s phone regularly. Her younger child only uses his phone in her company.

“One of the conditions when given the phone was I will spot check when I please,” Angela says. Her son once received a message with a picture from a child making fun of another child. “Thankfully, he didn’t engage but I did warn him what would happen if he did – I’d be taking the phone off him.”

Mum of three Jane doesn’t check her 14 year old’s phone. “We stopped checking a few months into first year in secondary school,” she says.

Jane says there are numerous reasons for not checking her teen’s phone. “My parents couldn’t overhear my conversations with friends – unless they picked up the phone extension – and I think teenagers need some privacy. We have many other rules around safety, like knowing where he is, checking in when he’s out, knowing who he’s with. And we have had many long, serious conversations around phone use.

“We live in a rural area where everyone knows everyone and there are few secrets. He also knows that some friends’ parents check theirs, so his conversations are not necessarily private.”

In my experience, parents have found crucial information about what is going on in their child’s life by checking their phone

—  Richard Hogan

Secondary schoolteacher Jenny is a parent of a teenager and she believes parents should check their teenagers’ phones. Unless something happens during school hours, schools are not involved in a teen’s phone activity, she says, so somebody needs to monitor it.

Richard Hogan, family psychotherapist and clinical director of the Therapy Institute, agrees that parents should check their children’s phones. “I think before a child gets a phone they should be told that their parents will be involved in their technological life and that at times they will check their phone. In my experience, parents have found crucial information about what is going on in their child’s life by checking their phone. Research shows the more parents are involved in their child’s life, the less likely they are to get involved in risky behaviour. So be involved and check their phones.”

Teenage romance

For some parents, the first flush of teenage love, relationships and all it entails are just a natural part of growing up. But others are keen to delay any budding teenage romance for as long as possible.

Ann has strict rules about allowing her teenagers to date and says no boyfriends or girlfriends are allowed before the age of 17. “I feel before 17 is just too young. Their hormones are all over the place and a break-up or getting too involved when they are 12-17 – they’re not really built emotionally to deal with it,” she says.

“At 17, they’ve dealt with hormones for a few years. They’re not mature but have an idea about life and I hope they know if a relationship breaks up it’s one of those things. My teens agree with me at the moment. I’m lucky they both want to enjoy their pastimes.”

Ann says these same rules applied to her when she was growing up. “My parents didn’t allow myself or my sister out in the evenings, unless to a friend’s house. We weren’t allowed to go to teenage discos. My first night out was my debs,” she adds.

As a parent, I try my best not to create opportunities, like leaving them alone in the house or in the bedroom

—  Susan

Susan’s daughter is 17 and has been with her boyfriend since she was 15. Susan says she has no problem with this. “He’s a nice lad and I think it’s sort of steadying for her. She’s not skittering all over the place after different lads every month.”

“Thankfully, they’re both studious, so I think they probably spur each other on,” she adds

Susan says she is conscious of a potential unplanned pregnancy and says she’s had several discussions about it. “As a parent, I try my best not to create opportunities, like leaving them alone in the house or in the bedroom. I know where there’s a willie, there’s a way, but all I can do is my best to give her a sense of responsibility.”

She’s aware also of the potential emotional fallout for her daughter if the young couple were to break up. It’s “always worrying. Young love can be both beautiful and cruel.”

Jenny teaches in a mixed school and says they have plenty of teenage romances there “from as young as second year”.

Jenny doesn’t think it’s particularly distracting for the teenagers. “There’s always going to be little romances going on and it very rarely causes any trouble.”

“The more parents meddle in their child’s romantic life, the more problems there will be in the family,” says Richard Hogan. “If parents dislike a particular boyfriend/girlfriend and view them as a bad influence, the worst thing they can do is voice that and try to end the relationship. This often has the opposite, Romeo and Juliet effect where what you deny becomes very appealing. My advice would be to talk to your child about the relationship and what a healthy relationship looks like.

“If they encounter bad behaviour they can critically evaluate that, rather than feeling like rejecting that person who is treating them badly would be an admission that mom and dad were right all along. The ‘told you so’ is often what keeps children from making a big decision for the better in their life.

“They learn so much about who they are and how others perceive them from those early relationships,” he continues. “Parents should be by their child’s side and not on it when it comes to early relationships. The course of true love never does run smoothly.”

Jen Hogan

Jen Hogan

Jen Hogan, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family